Winnie Natasha, 21 years old after winning her kickboxing match. Winnie is currently studying law at Juba University.

Winnie Natasha, 21 years old after winning her kickboxing match. Winnie is currently studying law at Juba University. Photo: Conor Ashleigh

The ‘Black Queen’ swings a fierce roundhouse kick into her opponent’s head and the crowd roars. She follows in with a quick combination of jabs then with several hooks pummel exposed ribs.

Winnie Natasha, a 21 year-old law student at South Sudan’s university in the capital Juba, has only been kickboxing for six months but already dreams of being a champion.

She is one of only two female kickboxers in war-ravished South Sudan, the globe’s youngest nation that on Tuesday will see its nine million inhabitants from more than 50 tribes celebrate their second Independence Day. 

Winnie Natasha, 21 years old after winning her kickboxing match. Winnie is currently studying law at Juba University.

Winnie Natasha, 21 years old after winning her kickboxing match. Winnie is currently studying law at Juba University. Photo: Conor Ashleigh

“I want South Sudan to move on, to become the best country in Africa, ” she said after her Friday night fight. "No more war. We have peace we don’t need war anymore."

The South Sudanese ‘International Kickboxing Challenge’ held at Juba’s Nyakuron Cultural Centre in front of 300 fans might seem at odds with a message of peace and unity.

Throughout the night young men of varying weights, heights and skill, along with differing tribes and religions, kick and bash each other to the crowd’s delight. The loudest roar coming when a visiting Ugandan fighter is knocked out with a punishing blow. 

Puro Okelo Obe the coach of the South Sudanese kickboxing club taks with his fighers at the end of the International Kickboxing Challenge in Juba, South Sudan .

Puro Okelo Obe the coach of the South Sudanese kickboxing club talks with his fighters at the end of the International Kickboxing Challenge in Juba, South Sudan. Photo: Conor Ashleigh

But for the club’s coach Puro Okelo Obe, a master in karate, jujitsu, aikido and a former professional kick boxer, it is all about building a stronger nation through team work.

Since Mr Okelo set-up the club in 2008, relying solely on the support of friends and family, it has grown to 186 members of all tribes and religions from seven years to late 20s.

“We are trying to eliminate all this negativity about South Sudan,” he said. “Of course, everyone is stuck to tribalism and not trusting one another. But we promote, 'we are one team', no matter where you are from, what your race or religion”.

Ms Natasha was born in Khartoum, the capital of South Sudan’s northern neighbour Sudan who has been a warring partner for more than three decades in two periods of fighting. Despite a peace agreement in 2005 and independence in 2011 tensions remain high between the two countries. Militia and rebels of varying factions continue sporadic fighting throughout disputed regions.

“I came to Juba in 2010,” she said. “I am happy. I am home, you feel safe, happy and free,” she said.

Ms Natahsa is adamant kickboxing is the right choice despite her father disagreeing.

“It is difficult being a woman in South Sudan, especially with parents. Kickboxing! They were very shocked. Before I played basketball and football. But sorry, I can play whatever I want. We have a lot of challenges, so sometimes you have to say: “to hell with it,” I like it,” she said.

South Sudan’s other female kickboxer Adut Bol, 27, a university graduate who started kick boxing in 2011, was an early crowd favourite when she broke the nose of her competitor – a mismatched Italian NGO worker.

Ms Bosal migrated to kick boxing after competing in karate and taekwondo.

“I have been to Uganda and Ethiopia with the team and am enjoying the experience very much,” she said.

Mr Okelo, who has moved between South Sudan and his other home in Canada since 1986, believes sport can make a difference.

 “We all went through the same wars. My father died in the first war. I want to be a positive role model, a community developer.

“We are trying our best to build this new nation from scratch. It is difficult but everything is possible. Through these young people and with positive energy, I think this country will move forward,” he said.